A God’s-Eye View: The Heartlands Interview with Katherine James, 3 of 3

21430607_10155382876155860_7627859225571601695_nA town named Trinity is bound to have some things to say about God.  In this final segment of my interview with debut novelist Katherine James, (whose book, Can You See Anything Now?, was published in October), we dig into the the book and find a Christian vision.  For previous segments, click here.

One of the most striking things in the book to me was, as we’re headed towards the culmination of the book and everybody’s coming to a vigil at the rehab center for the character who is in a coma, you take off to 30,000 feet and start to describe the town from above.  It was such a striking image.  It had the effect for me of moving to the God’s-eye view and seeing these characters, who really come from a whole lot of different backgrounds, as being all in this common journey.

That’s exactly what I wanted to do, and I hope that in the very beginning you see a little bit of that.  Also I think after Pixie, [the character in the coma], falls into the river, I go into it a little bit after that.  So, yeah, I’m going up into God, basically, looking down on the people and pulling all this together and having a plan for all of it.  Also, in the hospital, when Pixie wakes up to the ceiling, there’s this sense that God’s calling her but might allow her to stay.  You don’t really know whether He will or not. So, God is a huge, huge part of this book real. Although it’s in the background of the book, it was in the foreground of my mind when I wrote it.

416HGA6nSHL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Well, it is definitely a book about faith and I know your own Christian convictions.  But in the book, the most conventionally religious people in the book, like Etta and Pete, are at a distance most of the time.  The characters that you invite us to get closest to are very skeptical and wounded and hurting, but they are also vibrant and sympathetic.  So, I think you move towards the faith questions or help us understand the depth of characters like Etta only late in the book.  Is that a way of subverting expectations of what a Christian book should be? 

Yes.  Of course, I didn’t set out to write a Christian book and that’s almost what I wanted to avoid. But it’s in my head. It’s there and I couldn’t help but write that way because that’s my perspective.  It’s very troubling, what’s going on right now [in our country], and I wanted somehow to bring down these Christian factions, on both sides.

The truth is that Etta is in a Christian environment and she does do crafts that are silly.  But in the end, she respects and looks up to Margie’s abilities, and she’s kind of in awe of them. And her intellect and she wants to be like her. So, the change happening in Etta…you’re right, I don’t really get to until later in the book, because it begins with Margie and that’s who the book is about in many ways.

Nick, [Margie’s husband], has this view of Christians that’s very typical of the way that the world might see them.  He isn’t as open to her as much as Margie only because Margie is so broken that she’s humble and she’s willing to get to know somebody whom she doesn’t agree with or might have originally been skeptical of.  But, because she’s humbled by her situation, I think she’s open to Etta and very thankful to have that visitor and the fact that Etta would actually take the effort to do it rather than talking about Margie.

I’m not really mirroring the world because the truth is you do have people on the right that don’t have any substance. People on the left, too.  But I wanted to show that frequently, people really do have hearts.  Their convictions might be different, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t love.

The book is a lot about left and right.  A lot.  You also have Owen and Noel [two young adult characters in the book].  They have that scene were they have that little argument about pro-life.  That’s just a little snippet.  Are they going to be able to get together in light of this disagreement? Because it’s kind of big.  Or, maybe not.  In the end, you really don’t know. But it’s good to just open that up.

And they struggle with the idea of what goodness is. I appreciated that, too.

Exactly.

When you come back to earth in that culminating vigil scene, and it’s the day before the 4th of July, this all-American holiday that we might have used to think would bring us together in some kind of civic religion, the characters and the scene are so ‘typical small town.’ They’ve got plastic coolers and the paper lanterns and the brownies. But, I felt a real kinship with all those characters. They’re bringing what they’ve got and what they’ve got are plastic goods.  They don’t prepare them any more or less for what’s going on than the high art that the other characters have in the face of the mystery.

Exactly.  There’s this thing in the background that they all want. Their goal is the same. Kind of like America in our day and age—our goal is to wipe out evil, to not be affected by evil. But how we get there is completely different.

713640So, Trinity [the small town that is the main setting] becomes this nurturing place.   The name is a pretty dramatic gesture towards the divine. Is it God?

[laughs] Yes. Oh, basically yes, with the going up into the sky and looking down and all that sort of thing.  Very much. I wanted that to be there the whole time.  That there’s this reality that’s so much bigger than our pettiness down here, so far above all these silly things that we argue about. When you know the Ultimate Truth, beyond whether you’re left or you’re right.  He sees hearts and some hearts that look good but they’re terrible, that sort of thing.

There are sections [of the book] that are biblical, passages that people probably won’t pick up.  It talks about the people are like grasshoppers. They jump and something like that. That’s actually a verse somewhere.  [Isaiah 40:22]

[There are other biblical images.]  I would say that one of the biggest things in the novel is water.  Water and Margie and then water and Pixie—in both of those situations it’s very important to me, partly because of baptism and new life in both situations.  Water should have killed them both, but it ended up that it’s the water itself that saved them.

That’s one of the things that drew me into what was going on.  In Margie’s case, ultimately she has this rock that she climbs up on and she was able to stick her face above the water. And then the Mammalian Diving Reflex for Pixie, where she definitely should have drowned and died, but then because the water was so cold, the water actually ended up saving her life.

Both of those things, in the sense that God is that big and if we were to come into His presence, I don’t think that we would be able to survive.  Just like the sun, you can’t get too close or you’re just going to disintegrate.  However, because of Christ, God himself makes us able to approach him.  That’s something that’s very Christian that I don’t know who’s going to pick that up.

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Free to Use Dangling Participles: The Heartlands Interview with Katherine James, 2 of 3

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photo by Kelli Tungay via Unsplash

Let’s not put Katherine James’s debut novel, Can You See Anything Now?, (recently reviewed here on Heartlands), into a box called Christian fiction.  She is a Christian and there are strong Christian themes in the book, but this is not an Amish romance.  James tackles difficult themes like suicide, cutting, and substance abuse with vivid, fully-fleshed out characters.

In the first segment of this interview we talked about her life and her upcoming memoir.  Here we explore the freedom to write and following your instincts.

How long have you been living with this book?

Quite awhile. It’s one of those things where it’s in your head and you write notes and you leave it  alone for a while.  Actually, the first draft, (it was a messy draft), was before everything happened with our son.  So, it would probably be six to seven years ago.  Then, I just let it sit while we struggled through that whole time.  Interestingly, it seems like our struggles with our son informed the book, but the book was written before everything happened with our son.

Wow, that’s extraordinary.  Did you feel that the book was preparing you, in some way, for what happened?

Oh, that’s a really good question. It probably was in that, on a subconscious level, these were the sorts of things that were in my head.  Probably, because, by that time, we did have a lot of kids around our house that were struggling. We met some girls through our daughter. Our kids are all very close to my husband.  So, she would bring strays over to the house and sit them down in our living room with my husband and say, “Alright, you need to talk to my Dad.”  Then she’d sit them down and she’d leave to go to do something. So, my husband Rick would just be there with this girl and eventually they talk.  And I would come in and we’d talk together.  So, it was good. Kids stayed here a lot. Probably because we let them smoke. We were so stupid in a lot of ways.

Tell me a little bit about art and perspective and how that informed this book, because it’s so much a part of the book. You start with that really striking image in the beginning of Margie, one of the main characters, with her head above water following a suicide attempt.  You play with that perspective and then you keep shifting each chapter to different characters. How does your visual art sense play into constructing the book?

Very intensely.  It’s such a part of it.  I imagine the physical feel of things. I think the shape of my memory about the physicality of things, including what things look like is very permanent and perceptive. So I can remember things that way.  Verbally, I remember very little. Even when I read.  I’m a very slow, slow reader. Although I can stall on sentences and paragraphs and just be blown away, and very much appreciate excellent writing, that doesn’t mean that I remember a whole lot.

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Katherine James

For some reason, I can remember physical environment, images. And then, words would come out of those images.  I always think of Faulkner, because I think that I’ve read somewhere that he started with images.  I could really connect to that.

When I started to write, the most freeing things that anybody told me, (I think it was one of my professors when I was getting my MFA), was that you can do anything you want with fiction.  I was kind of blown away by that.  And I wasn’t sure. “What do you mean ‘anything I want’?”

“Any. thing. you want.”

And I go, “No way! I can have dangling participles?  Which, I don’t know what those are, but I can have them?  I don’t have to worry even about sentence structure if it sounds right?”  It was so freeing and after that is really when I hit the page.  I felt the freedom to keep going because my limitations really did tend to be not really knowing so much.

I don’t think that I’d be a very good composition teacher.  I could definitely teach poetry or fiction and I could teach those things well.  But when it comes to the mechanics of writing—the Chicago Manual style—I would just rip that up because it would really mess with my brain. So, that one statement was really powerful to me. It gave me this freedom to keep going.  Kind of like the Cubist movement maybe.

I’ve always heard that about writing: You learn all the rules so that you can break them.

[laughs] I never learned all the rules. I learned to break them immediately.  That’s why my poetry was so easy.  Sure, I knew how to write a sonnet and all of that, but free verse was big when I really started writing poetry in grade school.  It was really like, “Oh, I really can do anything I want”—I thought that was okay with poetry. But I didn’t know that with fiction that was true, too.  It can carry over into narrative nonfiction—at least these days it can.

416HGA6nSHL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Did you just feel that you were just following your instincts as you moved from chapter to chapter in this book?

Yes.  Every writer is so different, but, for me, usually I’ll write the first three chapters or so.  The characters begin to take shape and the environment   From there, I start to have a sense of where I’m headed.  Often I will go all the way to the back, to the last page, and I’ll write it.  I’ll write exactly where I want it to end.  Then I start back where I was before and I know exactly the ending that I want to get to.  So that’s the goal.  I can go anywhere in the middle but I know that’s where I want to end up.

It’s interesting how writers write.  I’ve heard that John Irving actually starts at the end and then writes towards the beginning.  I imagine if you could do that your plot would be phenomenal.

Of course, there are plenty of writers who do the outline or put little stick-up notes all over their desks, or Scrivner on the computer. I’ve tried that, but just doesn’t seem to work as well with me.

Segment 3 of the interview: “A God’s-Eye View”.

Writing and Painting Through Pain: The Heartlands Interview with Katherine James, 1 of 3

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photo by Ian Schneider via Unsplash

How can we see the world in new ways?  In her debut novel, Can You See Anything Now?, (recently reviewed here on Heartlands), Katherine James uses her background in painting and the difficult passages in her life to weave a story of a healing town named Trinity and the people who live in it.  It’s a small town like many others with the familiar divisions between left and right.  But it’s also a story of people coming together and seeing the possibility for something more.

It’s a great new book and I was happy to be able to interview her recently.  We talked writing, painting, faith, and more.  In the third part of this interview we dig deeper into the book itself.

You’re writing a memoir that’s due out next spring.

Yeah, it’s kind of an intense one. Surprisingly, it wasn’t too hard to write. I guess I can kind of remove myself from situations, but about 4 1/2-5 years ago, our son had an heroin overdose.  He did live through it but it was one of those really bad ones…in a coma and all that.

The timing in our world right now, with the opiate addictions and everything, I just felt like it was time to sit down and write it out.  During that time, there was a lot that went on. My husband and I took in a lot of his friends and helped them out.  It was successful. We didn’t know what the heck we were doing. We had no clue. We weren’t a rehab. Everybody was clean by then, but, you know, struggling.  We talked to a lot of them about Christ, and we saw some lives change. We went through a couple of deaths, a couple in prison.  You get the whole smattering of everything. But it was tragic. So, the whole memoir is kind of peppered with the story of our son having the overdose, and going in and being at the hospital, and all that.

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Katherine James

I just finished reading your article about your experience with breast cancer…the “Being Pretty” post in The Other Journal. So, you’ve had a whole lot of ^%#* happen.

[laughs] I know. I’m really hoping we’re out of this. But, at this point, I’m just careful in looking around the next corner, terrified of what’s going to happen.  Yeah, we had that.  It looks like everything’s cool but then, two years or so, really quite miraculously, I caught it early enough. I just happened to feel a lump. It was one of those things where the doctor said I saved my life. So yeah, that was a tough, little journey.

After the tragedy of our son, I could almost laugh the whole way through, honestly.  I was kind of like, “This is nothing.” So, I lose my chest. Who cares about that? [laughs]

Having told me the story of your son’s experience, I can see how that informed the book.  With all this going on, has writing become more important? Or has it assumed a different place within your life…a different size?

No, it has always been there, honestly.  I’m probably good at two things and two things only, really.  I can draw and paint. And I can write. That’s about it.

You don’t want to put me in an office—not because I’d hate it, but because every organized thing, I would just make it disorganized. So, that’s about all I have.

When I was painting, I always had this thing in the back of my mind where I’d rather be writing. With painting and writing, when that’s what you are doing, I feel like that’s the only way I can really focus on anything. You can always go back and perfect it, over and over again. Rework perfection.

With painting, it’s: ‘Quit trying to cover up your messes.’ It’s a whole different thing. That’s why I work with oil, because it all mixes together a little bit. I don’t know if you’ve ever painted…

No, I learned a whole lot about painting from your book.

So, with oil, it all mushes together, which is wonderful. The oil mixes with the oil and you can make this beautiful color that’s nice and smooth. You’re making new colors on the canvas as you paint. In writing, it would almost be as though your sentences were overlapping on each other.  And when you wrote a new sentence, the other sentence would have to somehow mesh with the one before.

So, the memoir is done ? Well, except maybe for the title. [laughs]

[laughs] Yeah, it’s finished.  Honestly, I’ve never written a book that’s non-fiction before. I mean, I’ve written other novels that I just thought were crummy. I never really did much with them, but it was good to write.  I think you do have to write a couple of book-like things before you can narrow in, and say, “Hey, I’m actually going to pursue this one.”

416HGA6nSHL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Can you talk about the personal struggle of writing a memoir?  What was it like to go through that, reliving some of those painful parts of life and joyous parts?

Memoir is a beast for me only because it’s true; I can’t just make things up. It was really hard to have something linear, so that it made sense.  I had too much material.  I had to decide what to put in there and leave out.  So, that was really difficult.

As far as actually writing the thing, surprisingly, I disconnected myself from it.  It wasn’t particularly hard for me to do. However, I wanted my son to vet it, and also my husband. My son read the first two chapters and then he came in and said, “It’s really well-written, but I just can’t keep going on.”  It didn’t hurt him, he just said, “It really hurts me that I hurt you that I hurt you so much.”  Then, he apologized again that he’d ever done that to us. So, that was just really sweet.  Then, my husband felt the same way.  After reading the first few chapters, he had to just gave it back.

Segment 2 of the interview: “Free to Use Dangling Participles.”

Finding God in a Small Town: A Review of Can You See Anything Now?

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photo by Annie Spratt via Unsplash

You could hardly imagine two more different artists than the ones you meet in the opening pages of Katherine James’s debut novel, Can You See Anything Now? [Paraclete, 2017].

There’s Margie, who paints vivid canvases, attributing personal characteristics to still lifes, sketching nudes, and doing a grand scale work featuring ovens that make her daughter think of Sylvia Plath.  Margie, who explores and struggles with depth and negative space in her attic studio, her life, her family, and in Trinity, her small, upstate town.  Margie, who chooses drowning as the method for her latest suicide attempt because it is “metaphorically appropriate in light of the lungs filling with liquid and air bubbling upward like packets of life that pop at the surface” (5).

Then there’s Etta, her churchgoing neighbor, whose painting tends toward tomatoes and rooftops.  Her work is folky, adorned with rusty nails and wire, accessible, and easily reproducible.  She has a front porch with a Cracker Barrel rocker and she reads popular Christian books to help strengthen her marriage.  Her cooking tends to Crock Pot recipes and hot dog casseroles.

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Katherine James

The artist behind these artists is Katherine James, who has fashioned a richly-textured, sharply-observed book that deserves to be in the hands of everyone who grieves over the divides of our day, longs to feel God’s presence in the land of living, and who imagines unlikely friendships.

Margie and Etta are not the only characters in this book, but their friendship is emblematic of James’s vision.  It begins when Margie, fresh off an MS diagnosis, canoes out to a swimming platform in the lake on a crisp, fall morning, ties a rock to her leg, and slips into the waters only to find that the lake is more shallow than she expected.  After several hours of floating with her head above water, she is rescued from her humiliating predicament and returns home.  Etta drops by the house with a basket of bran muffins a few days later and over the course of time  Margie finds that she has many more chapters left, not only with Etta, but with her therapist husband, Nick, and college-aged daughter, Noel, as well.

James’s strangely hopeful book drops in at a difficult time in our American narrative.  It’s not that her many well-defined characters don’t have struggles.  They do.  Opioids, family dysfunction, cutting, and a horizon of lowered economic expectations—they’re all here.  The inescapable cultural and political divide of Trumpian America is always in the background.  And the threat of death returns in another incident in the waters, when Noel’s troubled roommate, Pixie, visiting during the Thanksgiving break, slips beneath the ice of the town’s river.

Even so, things are being restored in Trinity.  Noel and her on-again-off-again boyfriend, Owen, find their way past old divisions and emerge from a day (at the lake) as lovers.  Pixie’s odd father, Pete, comes to town to care for her, and finds a kind of faith.  When he shares with Nick and Margie his simple trust in God to raise his daughter, Nick resorts to his rationalist reservoir.  “There’s a lot to be said for religion,” Nick says, though he himself can’t say much for it.

Yet the whole exchange takes place in a warm kitchen over beer and fettuccini, hinting at a kind of communion all the characters are longing for.

“I’m homesick,” Noel says as she watches her mother paint through her pain.  “Even when I’m home I’m homesick.” (282)

Katherine James,  the painter, uses her artist’s eye to give her work shifting perspectives, moving deftly between characters in each of the short chapters.  She brings us up close to sensual details, which we pass each day.  The sad, “gray plastic fountain [in the nursing home] that had a stream of water over a shelf of yellow-stained plastic and them emptied into a little pond with a rock in the middle, and then pumped back up to do it again” (285)?  I’ve seen that fountain.

416HGA6nSHL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgJames can also soar into the heavens to see the world with the eyes of God, nowhere more effectively than in the climactic vigil that ends the book.  When the skeptics and the true believers gather in a nursing home parking lot, they bring their coolers and pick food from aluminum trays that sit atop folding tables.  Even their greatest attempts at spiritual connection are surrounded by the trappings of American consumer culture.

And yet “view the town like an eagle,” and you see a great river of people on a quest.  “The trees are pine near the water and into the air they emit a nostalgic smell, a backwards whisper reminding people that they can’t get at something they know is important…The day is still and hot and the people are waiting.  The people are like grasshoppers and they wait.” (305-6)  Like God, you can’t help but love these troubled, searching people.

Don’t come to Can You See Anything Now? with the expectation of composed piety.  Katherine James has seen hard times and her writing displays the searing quality of those experiences.  There is beauty, but whether you can see it now is always an open question.  God and faith are here, but they appear in the way they do in real life, in quiet, unexpected ways and always on the provisional ground of the present day.

This is a deeply Christian book, and it is excellent Christian fiction.  It’s also just plain, unqualified, excellent fiction approached with real heart.  Go, see what you can see.

My interview with Katherine James is up now!.

The Destabilizing Doors of Exit West: A Review

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photo by David Zawila via Unsplash

Reading Mohsin Hamid’s acclaimed new novel, Exit West, as a window on the current global migration crisis is a mistake.  The world imagined by the Pakistani-born Hamid is not one facing a migration issue – migration is the environment in which all its characters swim.  It’s not a problem to be addressed; it is in the nature of being human.

You can draw your parallels to contemporary events.  Syria seems the most likely candidate for the unnamed Muslim country undergoing a civil war where Nadia and Saeed begin their relationship and their journey.  But the lens Hamid offers us is gauzy enough to allow the details of the place to move to the edges.  His is a land of universals and lasting truths.

51Ma6eymR0L._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgThe couple is intriguing, mostly because they never entirely connect with each other.  They meet in an evening class on “corporate identity and product branding” (3), a topic that comes to seem as relevant as advanced semiotics as the country deteriorates into conflict.  Saeed lives with his parents and is faithful in his prayers, though not militant in his beliefs.  Nadia dresses the part of a conservative Muslim girl, but she is much more independent, living on her own, willing to break with the norms she has been given.  He wants to marry her and eventually does bring her to live in his family home.  She is wary and hesitant about committing to him.

Nonetheless, they depend on one another and when mysterious doors begin to appear that transport people instantly across the world, they determine to leave together.  Their doorway leads them to the Greek island of Mykonos where they find a camp that acts as a way station before migrants leave for other places.  Eventually, Nadia makes a new friend who leads them to another door that opens the way to London, where many thousands of displaced people are beginning to collect.

The magical realism introduced into the novel by the doors adds to the disorientation of the story.  Even when we are in named places, like Mykonos and London, (and later Marin, California), the presence of the doors destabilizes what we think we know.  Hard boundaries disappear and a general anxiety grows.

In London it takes the form of a nativist backlash against the migrants.  The military and paramilitary groups push the migrants into ghettos and disconnect services.  There is violence and the threat of genocide.

Saeed and Nadia sit on a bed in the darkness and discuss “the end of the world” and whether their story will end here.

“I can understand it,” [Nadia] said.  “Imagine if you lived here.  And millions of people from all over the world suddenly arrived.”

“Millions arrived in our country,” Saeed replied.  “When there were wars nearby.”

“That was different.  Our country was poor.  We didn’t feel we had as much to lose.”  (164)

That’s about as deep as the overt reflection on migration issues gets.  Of course, you feel the resonance with nativist movements everywhere, including the US.  But this is not a book that moves you to visceral reaction.  There is an ocean of understanding here for all sorts of peoples.

Understanding, yes, but never real connection.  In this world of doors, which allows people to slip away from each other so easily, the characters are always seeking something other than what they have.  Vignettes tell of parents struggling to understand children who come and go through doors, of two old men who find an unlikely common bond because of a doorway between Amsterdam and Brazil, and of an old woman in Palo Alto who sees all the changes and understands that “she too had migrated, that everyone migrates, even if we stay in the same houses our whole lives, because we can’t help it.  Everyone migrates through time.” (209)

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Mohsin Hamid

There’s a prevailing sense in the book that technology is partly to blame for the disorientation.  Drones fill the sky and we’re never sure to what purpose – benign or ill.  And people disappear figuratively into their screens as easily as they move through the doors, something that is not magical realism at all, as we all know.  Nadia and Saeed have several moments when they occupy the same space, but are miles apart because of their separate wanderings on their smartphones.

In the end there is a veil of melancholy and uncertainty over this book that matches the present mood in which so many people feel that their circumstances are limited and the old ways have failed.  Hamid offers for encouragement only the reduced dreams of Marin, the coastal California town where Nadia and Saeed end up.

Marin was overwhelmingly poor, all the more so in comparison to the sparkling affluence of San Francisco.  But there was nonetheless a spirit of at least intermittent optimism that refused entirely to die in Marin, perhaps because Marin was less violent than most of the places its residents fled, or because of the view, its position on the edge of a continent, overlooking the world’s widest ocean, or because of the mix of its people, or its proximity to that realm of giddy technology that stretched down the bay like a bent thumb, ever poised to meet the curved finger of Marin in a slightly squashed gesture that all would be okay.  (195)

Here on the tail end of the Delmarva peninsula, I live on the other curved finger of American geography where the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay prevents the closed circle gesture to signify that things are okay.  Hamid exits west to the place American dreamers have always gone.  We look east here – to where our old stories emerged and to where new suns rise each day.  The longing is the same.  To know our place beneath the stars.

Dreaming Something Real: A Review of Music of the Swamp by Lewis Nordan

IMG_6592“Probably the real self is in fact the invented self fully accepted.”  That’s Lewis Nordan’s justification for declaring that his outrageous, out-sized fiction is actually memoir.  He created himself through imagining a different past, different circumstances, and a different father than the disappointing realities he knew as a child growing up in Itta Bena, Mississippi.  And because he so fully entered the fiction he wrote, he found in it a lasting reality.

I discovered Lewis Nordan earlier this year when I read Wolf Whistle, his wild (and creepily humorous) take on the Emmett Till murder which happened not far away from his Mississippi home.  What I loved about Nordan was his ear for dialogue, his willingness to risk difficult perspectives (e.g. narrators that included violent racists and Till’s dislocated eye), and his freedom.  All with a strong sense of place.

51ETxQY6ioL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_I knocked around Nordan’s Mississippi this summer.  Nordan himself died in 2012, but I brought with me Music of the Swamp, his loosely-constructed narrative about a boy named Sugar Mecklin with a childhood much like his own.  It’s not as exuberant as Wolf Whistle.  There’s a lot of his personal despair spilling into this story.  The book opens with the discovery of a body and includes the father’s judgment on the whole sorry scene, “The Delta is filled up with death.”

Despite that, Sugar emerges as a dreamer, seeing the world as he wants to see it.  Creating a bond with a father who is incapable of returning his affection.  Imagining a more magical world.

One of the key scenes takes place at a Mississippi beach following a hurricane.  Attracted by low hotel rates in the aftermath of the storm, Sugar’s dad tries to woo his mother into a second honeymoon and only reluctantly agrees to take Sugar along.  Amidst the wreckage and obvious ugliness, the family struggles to make the vacation work.  And even though it doesn’t, you can’t help but admire the effort.

My edition of the book has an essay at the end entitled “The Invention of Sugar: An Essay about Life in Fiction—and Vice Versa.”  I was very glad to have this glimpse into Nordan’s process.  It’s here that he shares his life-long struggle to fully accept his invented self.  And it’s here he finds some healing.

“Always my stepfather will have been a housepainter and always, for one frightening moment in the Snack Shop on North State Street in Jackson, Mississippi, he will have a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Michigan, and always my stepfather will have been a man who had a stepson who became a literary person and tried to give order to chaos, first by stretching history’s boundaries to include what never happened, and then by shrinking them to acknowledge the lie, and then to say, with a conflicted heart, that since the non historical was for a while historical then it too, in some way, must be included within history’s elastic frame.” (209)

nordan

Lewis Nordan

Fiction finds a way to include the end to our restless longings within the structure of time and in that way becomes our reality.  This is how I view the Christian narrative of the Bible.  Within the despair and suffering of the world, there is another reality made clear by a human life emerging from a long narrative of a wild and unruly people and exposing the ultimate victory of love.  The end of our desire appearing in the middle of the story, as it were, challenging us to see the world as it really is.  Like the beauty of the swamps of Mississippi, it is so easily disregarded.  And yet for sharp-eyed dreamers it is the heartbeat of something enduring and inevitable.

I’m going back to Nordan’s Mississippi, if only in his fiction.  Perhaps Sugar Among the Freaks is next.

Music of the Swamp

by Lewis Nordan

Algonquin Books, 1992

209 pages

Can We Talk About Sexuality?

41BB69XhR3L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_“In every family there are subjects that seem to bring out the worst in us when we discuss them.  For United Methodists, that topic is currently homosexuality.” (9)  So says Jill Johnson, one of my co-authors of the new book, Living Faithfully: Human Sexuality and The United Methodist Church, just out from Abingdon Press.  But this book may help us to bring our best selves to the discussion.

Living Faithfully is designed to help participants “understand and grapple with various views about the ministry and teaching of The United Methodist Church around human sexuality.”  I’m happy to have been a contributor to this new four-week small group study.  (I got chapter 4.)  A Leader Guide is included with lesson plans for facilitating the study.

The book includes biblical and theological reflections along with information on United Methodist structure and diverse perspectives.  You’ll learn about the Commission on a Way Forward and where the denominational discernment is moving in the next few years.

“In every family there are subjects that seem to bring out the worst in us when we discuss them.  For United Methodists, that topic is currently homosexuality.”

I come to a close in my chapter with the following thought: “Full inclusion of LGBTQ persons and diversity of biblical interpretation are important to explore.  But we may not be able to go far in the conversation unless we first have spirits formed by Christian community and the disciplines of that community.  Without that soil to grow in, our debates will look suspiciously like those that dominate our divided nation.” (82)

I pray this book helps to understand an important issue, but more so, I hope it brings people together for deep and fruitful growth as beloved community.

Available now from Abingdon Press, Amazon, and other fine purveyors of United Methodist resources.

 

Carson’s Place – My Interview with Nick Norwood Continues – part 2 of 3

In the first part of my interview with Nick Norwood, director of the Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians at Columbus State University, we talked about the universal themes of McCullers’ writing.  Today we talk about the strong sense of place in her work and the way Columbus, Georgia, her hometown, informs it.

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The Eagle and Phoenix Mill in Columbus, GA

So we think of Carson McCullers as a writer of the heart but she also has this strong sense of place. How do you see this having lived here a long time? How does Columbus fit into her work?

I once tried to write fiction when I was at the University of North Texas. I also loved poetry but one of the things I noticed about writing fiction is that I could not take myself seriously writing, creating characters who didn’t speak with a Southern accent. For better or worse my characters were gonna have to be Southerners because that was the only way that I could have them speak in what I considered to be an authentic way.  It occurs to me that that is partly where Carson is coming from, not just in terms of how characters speak but how they act, and what they eat and all the letters and all of those things — that was her foundation.

You can find all of these different writers who make this remark about your best stuff comes from your childhood. I believe that’s true, I really do. It’s been true in my life as a writer and I believe that it’s true and this is the place where she grew up so it’s the source for all her stuff. The other thing is that she saw firsthand the situation of the poor millworker.  So she had that firsthand experience of poverty and that sort of hard life and what it does for instance to race relations.  These people are on the lowest rung of the socio-economic ladder for white people and so they’ve got to have somebody that they feel is beneath them—that’s African-Americans.  So you can imagine what it’s like being an African-American.  So I think all of that stuff informs her work.

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Nick Norwood

You can also find other things in her work where you realize, once you know about her life, “Ah, that had to have been partly where she gained the insight.”  For instance, in her second book, [Reflections in a Golden Eye], we have this homosexual army officer and that was one of the things that really angered people [about the book] here in Columbus. One of her best friends was Edwin Peacock, who was a gay soldier here, and through him she met other gay soldiers.  This is this thing that people didn’t want to see, didn’t want to recognize, wanted to pretend it didn’t happen. It was dangerous for someone like Edwin Peacock to have someone know this about him but Carson knew it.

So you can find things in her work all the time that show you: “Oh, she had the real experience that she had in Georgia that helped give her the insight about this.” Carson was able to see in her own little town things that relate to the human condition in general.  It was like all great writers who end up being able to connect with other people: [through] experiences they have growing up, they’re able to see people beyond just the way that their neighbors try to see them.

They’re both insiders and outsiders. She grew up Lula Carson; that’s about as Southern as you can get and she loved Southern food.  if you’ve ever heard her voice—I have people from Columbus tell me, that’s not just a Georgia accent that’s a Columbus accent that you hear there.

So she’s an insider but on the other hand she was an outsider and was shunned by a lot of people because she was ‘weird.’  That’s the term that they always used to refer to her from the beginning.  She didn’t dress right; she was much more interested in the society of books than she was with society of her neighbors. She was just a young person who remained aloof and was mocked and didn’t care, which rural people do not like. So she was an outsider which allowed her to observe them more objectively than most people who are from a place are able to do.  That’s where Columbus shows up in her work.  She was able to see, in Columbus, so many different facets of the human experience in this one place.

Maybe that has something to do with the particular place because even though it’s a relatively small town, it was about 40,000 when she was growing up, it’s kind of interesting the number of people from different walks of life, to use that cliché, but also from different geographic regions that this place brings together.  Fort Benning is huge and when you start reading about the history of the army in the 20th century, all the major players came through this place.

Eisenhower was the commandant at one point. Rusty Calley was tried here [for the My Lai massacre in Vietnam] and then spent most of the rest of his life living in this town. My partner lives a few blocks from where Omar Bradley had lived around the corner from her house.  Still, as a teacher at Columbus State, I teach students who come from all over the country and even from different parts of the world because of Fort Benning.  Then there’s the Coca-cola connection and the cotton mills that drew in all of this industry. So it was, in a way, a good place to soak up humanity.

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Nick Norwood’s poetry in an installation at the Eagle and Pheonix Mill in Columbus

I read your piece about the millworkers for Library of America.  Even though she’s got those characters like Jake Blount and Dr. Copeland who are really engaged in thinking about political realities and economics, I’ve never really thought of her as having that side developed.  Of course, she was only 19 when she wrote it but you see that she had a real feel for it.

The other things that she wrote about are more widely discussed.  They’ve become part of this prominent national conversation that we’re having about, take for instance, sexual orientation.  At [a recent] international conference, there was a lot of talk about that.  In fact, they had an open call for proposals for papers and then, based on the proposals that they got, they came up with the sessions because there were so many people writing about like things.  They had to have two sessions for gender and sexuality cause there were so many people who wanted to write about that aspect of her work.  Not one paper on her writing about the working class, not one.

That’s partly because, McCullers tends to attract a certain type of scholar—people who are interested in certain kind of things.  People who are attracted to writing about the working class and so forth have more often gone to other writers.  But I think that’s a mistake that you overlook that aspect of her work because it is prominent and one of her major characters in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is Jake.  That’s what he’s all about.  If you read her author’s outline where she’s describing the town, clearly it was a big part of what she was thinking about and writing about.  Setting the story in a town like this with the mill culture and poor and how the mill workers all had that look of loneliness and sadness.  It’s a big part of her work that is currently being overlooked, but with the popularity of J.D. Vance’s book, [Hillbilly Elegy], because of this recent election, maybe more people will consider that aspect of it.

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Alex hanging out with Carson McCullers

She talks in one of her essays about homesickness being the American disease—we’re always looking for a home. 

“Loneliness: An American Malady” is the title of the piece.

How does that play out with Columbus because after she left she never really returned to live?

She’s sort of like James Joyce—left and never wanted to live there again but never wrote about anything else. It’s a cliché, again, this love-hate relationship, but, especially if you’re as sensitive a person as Carson McCullers was and you’re exposed to this place at that most impressionable time in your life, its going to be a big part of you.  At the time same time, as Thomas Wolfe says, you can never go home again.  It’s never going to be the same.

Even though I think she was grandstanding a little bit when she said, “I have to return home periodically to renew my sense of horror,” she really was horrified by what went on here—the poverty, the race relations, and all of those things.  You can’t get away from it and on the other hand you can’t return to it.

But what she says in that essay about the particular American version of loneliness, (and I’ve flown this by people from other countries to see if they would say “Well, that’s not true.  We have the same thing” and no one’s really called me on that), her argument is basically that we don’t have the class ties that the European countries have and that long history.  I was just in Italy and you study all of this Roman history and realize even that was built on earlier histories.  You have these traditions that have been going on for thousands of years.  We don’t have that here, so to be disconnected here is to really be disconnected.

One of the interesting things that she says is that writers and artists have often formed themselves into schools.  They branch out from the mainstream but they’re not doing it alone, They have other people similar.

She says more often what happens in America is that writers and artists branch out by themselves.  They launch themselves out into outer space alone. Maybe it’s that pioneering spirit in them.  Those are her arguments for why Americans maybe experience spiritual isolation, if not in fact, in a more intense way, at least in a unique way.

It is a strange thing in the case of somebody like Carson but one of the things to me that shows that she really did feel a sort of homesickness is when she talks about food and holidays and the trees.  You can tell that she misses those things intensely.

She was asked by Holiday magazine to write a piece on the South and they couldn’t publish it.  She could only be honest, so it was not just talking about good, happy things, which is what they wanted—the things that you love about Columbus.  She couldn’t do it without also talking about the things that are not good, about the natives’ racism and other things.  That’s one of the things that has estranged her from a lot of people in Columbus especially during her lifetime and among people who were still alive in the decades after her death.  She exposed the town’s dirty laundry and they think that’s unforgivable.

Nick Norwood is the author of The Soft Blare (2003), A Palace for the Heart (2004), and Gravel and Hawk (2012), winner of the Hollis Summers Prize.  

Segment 3 of this interview

The Spiritual Isolation of Carson McCullers – An Interview with Nick Norwood – part 1 of 3

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Nick Norwood in front of a painting of Carson McCullers in Columbus, GA

So, I’ve got a thing for Carson McCullers.  Anybody who read this blog through the McCullers-palooza that was her 100th birthday celebration in February will know that this Southern writer speaks to me.  The characters that she introduced us to in such classics as The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Member of the Wedding, and The Ballad of Sad Cafe are indelible, all afflicted with the same malady – the longing for love and connection.  It’s the same theme that some of our greatest Christian writers (Augustine, Julian of Norwich) have dealt with.

Nick Norwood, who is, among other things, the director of the Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians at Columbus State University, calls this theme ‘spiritual isolation.’

On my current renewal leave, I stopped by Columbus, Georgia at the childhood home of McCullers, who was born Lula Carson Smith.  Sitting in the kitchen of that house where a young Carson produced her earliest works using the pocket doors for a curtain and her siblings as actors, I got to spend a great hour with Nick, who is also an accomplished poet and Professor of Creative Writing at CSU.

In the three parts of this interview we talk McCuller’s sense of place in writing, her ongoing influence, and what it’s like being a Southern poet.

37380So if you had to say why people should still be interested in Carson McCullers what would you say?

Well, I think one of the things is that Carson McCullers developed universal themes.  To me that’s why she’s a writer with real staying power.  She took on, as a major theme, what she refers to as spiritual isolation.  People have used other terms for it. The term ‘loneliness’ has gotten attached to her, mostly I think because of the title of that first novel, [The Heart is a Lonely Hunter], but also because that’s the theme that she continued to return to in all her major works.

She’s one of those writers who’s going to speak to people no matter where they’re from or what age they live in. To me, here’s proof of that: Why would people in France, in Italy, in China, in Japan, all relate to her so strongly if it weren’t for the fact that she’s developing something universal.  Not only that but she’s doing it in a unique way, in a fresh way. To me, what she does with John Singer in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, that’s a piece of genius.  So to me that’s the main reason.

A lot has been said recently about how a lot of the social issues that she dealt with in her books are now at the forefront of some national conversations—things that have to deal with sexual orientation, gender, race, all those things.  Sarah Schulman, a novelist and lesbian rights activist, wrote a really interesting piece that was published in The New Yorker last year.  She makes the argument that now is the time for writers to be returning to Carson McCullers. And the specific reason she said was that there is now this ongoing debate about white writers writing about people who are not like themselves, people of color for instance.  It’s gotten kind of contentious and [Schulman] is very sensitive to that and doesn’t dismiss it at all but says,  “Still, I want to be able to write about the full human spectrum, so how do I do it?”

She notes that Carson McCullers does it and she quotes the famous review by Richard Wright of Carson’s first book: “She’s the first white writer to be able to write about black characters with as much understanding and sympathy as she does her white characters.”  So, there’s one reason why people should be reading her now.  But to me the main reason is that she wrote about universal things that are still as important as they were when she wrote them.

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The Smith-McCullers House in Columbus, GA

What makes it spiritual isolation? I like that term for it.

There is literally being physically, if you will, isolated but what’s more important to her is this idea that we all feel at times that we’re alone and nobody completely understands us. That’s why I think The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is so brilliant because we have this character, John Singer, who is an exemplary human being and really is sensitive to other people.  And because he doesn’t speak, it makes people think that, not only is he a good listener, but he understands them.  Then, of course, the big revelation is: no, he doesn’t.

My partner is also a colleague of mine.  She teaches art and she taught The Heart is a Lonely Hunter this past year too.  A lot of us did because of the [100th anniversary] celebration.  We argued about this character of Antonapoulos.  She thinks that John Singer’s devotion to Antonapoulos is ridiculous and unbelievable.  I said, “No, I think the reason that she had to do it that way is to show how strong is this desire to have somebody to connect to.”

Antonapoulos is the only person Singer knows for one thing.  There’s the practical issue that Antonapoulos understands sign language.   He’s also a mute so he can relate to Singer and it just helps her develop the theme.  So when she talks about spiritual isolation it’s this idea that we’re alone and nobody completely understands us.  That is pretty bleak but that is the situation of all humans.  Maybe it’s not always that way.  Maybe there’s some temporary relief from that situation but that is the basic situation.

So, you have Singer, the most exemplary lover, and even he has his own isolation. 

When she has him write the letter to Antonapoulos it is revealed to us that he doesn’t know these other characters who come to him with their problems. He’s not sure what they’re talking about.  I love it when he says, about Jake, “He thinks that we have a secret together but I do not know what it is.” But all of this is prefaced by the fact that he’s writing this letter to Antonapoulos whom he knows is not able to read.

 

Nick Norwood is the author of The Soft Blare (2003), A Palace for the Heart (2004), and Gravel and Hawk (2012), winner of the Hollis Summers Prize.  

Segment 2

God and Arson: My interview with Monica Hesse concludes – part 3 of 3

Hesse, MonicaIn previous segments of this interview, I talked with Monica Hesse, author of American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land, about her experience of the Eastern Shore and her thoughts about what the 2012-2013 arsons have to say about rural America in general.  Today we conclude with some thoughts about the religious life of the Shore and her next project.

I was curious about your sense about religious life on the Shore and the role that churches might have played in the story.

I interviewed several ministers and a few of them appear in the book. It was moving to me to hear about, Jon Woodburn, who ministered to 3 churches in Accomack in a circuit and one of them was lit on fire and the flames were discovered on Ash Wednesday.  He was wonderful to talk to.  You discover these scorch marks and then it’s Ash Wednesday and then you have a service.  What do you talk about?

He said, “We talked about how it would’ve been so easy for the church to burn down but it didn’t and what comfort we could take from the fact that it didn’t and that we were still here and we were still together.”

I talked to ministers who would talk about finding in their hearts and their congregations finding it in their hearts to pray for the arsonist thinking anyone who is doing this must be very troubled.  So it seems to me at least that the people who were religious were able to take great comfort in an act that seemed so completely senseless. I’m not saying that faith gave the actions meaning but I’m saying that it seems like faith was giving people an opportunity to try to make sense of this chaos or to try to look at the chaos in ways beyond fear.

Then I also talked to folks who were from different strains, who maybe had more literal interpretations of the Bible, who thought that this was like a literal apocalypse, that these were literal signs that the world might be coming to an end or there might be some larger forces.  So it would make sense that faith leaders were able to bring levels of comfort and these levels of comfort were sorely needed in the community at the time.

18682748So what’s next for you? 

Actually, this is my first non-fiction book but I also write fiction.  This book came out the same day that I had a fiction deadline for another novel.  So I just turned in the manuscript for the novel.

I’d love to do another non-fiction book but the thing that makes non-fiction so difficult for me at least is that you really have to find exactly the right story because the story is all you have.  You can’t embellish or make anything up in it so my agent has been asking what I’m going to write about next and it’s hard because I know, whatever I choose, I’m going to have to live with for several years and I’m going to have to feel like it has that weight to carry me through.

Right. So is it more Young Adult fiction or is it adult fiction now?

No, it’s YA fiction but the book that I had written before this is historical fiction set in WWII and this is another in that genre. It’s another historical fiction set in the war.